Jurors reject charges of bias in Biennial art selection

  • Doris Madsen holds her piece “400 years later #4,” which became the focus of a controversy that prompted the Northampton Arts Council to cancel its Biennial art exhibit, at Forbes Library last week. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/12/2021 4:53:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In the wake of the city’s Arts Council abruptly canceling its Biennial art and poetry exhibit at Forbes Library, citing a flawed selection process and the inclusion of an artwork some considered objectionable, two of the jurors say they’re disturbed by the decision and the failure of the council to contact them before scrapping the show.

Jessica Tam, one of three jurors for the visual arts component of the Biennial, went further, saying the council’s board members not only devalued the time she had spent evaluating a wide range of artwork, but they also allowed another artist who had objected to the exhibit to disparage her in a Sept. 28 Zoom meeting with what she called “offensive language with racist implications.”

“Not a single council member suggested bringing the jurors into the conversation or even notifying them about their decision,” Tam wrote in a letter she sent to the Arts Council, “though the selection process and the jurying committee were condemned after being discussed at length as both a group and as individuals.”

Tam, whose letter also appeared as an op-ed in Tuesday’s Gazette, took issue with comments that Easthampton artist and poet Jason Montgomery made at the Sept. 28 meeting, at which he demanded the exhibit be canceled, saying the council had failed to reach out to Indigenous artists and that its selection process for the show was “fundamentally flawed.”

But Tam, a former Valley resident who now lives and teaches art in Boston — she has exhibited her work in places such as Northampton’s Oxbow Gallery — wrote that Montgomery “used a discussion on serious concerns about equity and representation to insult my critical judgment on the basis of my race and education, to insult the judgment of a second juror who is a white male, and to make the labor of a third juror, a Latina woman, invisible.”

Tam says the Arts Council board members only added to the problem by “either tacitly or verbally affirm(ing)” Montgomery’s comments, including one that Tam was an “Asian woman with an MFA from Yale.”

“I am Asian-American,” Tam wrote. But in referring to her as Asian and speaking dismissively of her degree from the Yale School of Art, Montgomery, she says, implied she was a “foreigner” and that her objectivity as a juror was suspect: “The insinuation is that I fulfilled the model minority myth and that I served in the interest of whiteness.”

Arts Council board members voted 4-2, with one abstention, to cancel the Biennial exhibit, which was due to open Oct. 2. It included the work of 60 visual artists and poets.

‘We didn’t come in with an agenda’

In a phone interview, Tam explained that she and the two other jurors — Dean Brown, owner of PULP art gallery in Holyoke, and Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegria, an artist, poet, and retired professor from Springfield — all viewed the visual art submissions for the Biennial online. All that the jurors saw was the art and in some cases, a brief artist’s statement; both Tam and Brown say no names or other identifying information was included.

Brown estimates he reviewed about 250 artworks online, all of which the jurors were asked to grade on a scale from 1 to 5. After that, he and Anaya-Alegria, along with a representative from the Arts Council, met in person at Forbes to discuss the choices and come up with a final tally for the exhibit, based on which works had the highest cumulative scores; Tam attended the meeting via Zoom.

Tam says the jurors “had a respectful discussion. I think we were largely in agreement about our choices and what we thought should be in the exhibit.”

Brown agrees, saying “We each had an opportunity to review each other’s choices and discuss if we felt something was missed.”

In a follow-up email, Brown said, “At the end each juror had an opportunity to bring forward any other work they felt deserved to be in the show. Or any issues they might have. I think Jessica brought forward about 4 or 5, I had 1 or 2, and I don’t think Alvilda had any.”

Brown also said he’d never served on this kind of artistic panel before and felt a bit humbled by the experience: “I thought, ‘Who am I to sit in judgment of this art?’ I felt like I really tried to look at the work objectively, outside of my own aesthetics … and there was an openness to the whole process. We didn’t come in with an agenda.”

He added that he was surprised to learn that the Biennial was canceled; nobody from the Arts Council informed him of that decision, he said.

Anaya-Alegria did not respond to an email seeking comment.

‘Genocidal art’

The Arts Council first announced its decision Oct. 1 with a brief statement that the exhibit contained “harmful genocidal art” and that the selection process for the exhibit “did not include the voices and the art of (the Indigenous) community.”

The reference to “harmful genocidal art” was to a print called “400 Years Later” by Easthampton artist Doris Madsen, a white woman who created a piece depicting the Mayflower and abstract figures representing Native Americans. The artwork, Madsen told the Gazette last week, was a reflection on the four centuries that had passed since the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and the long history of violence and subjugation Indigenous people faced during that span.

But Montgomery, who is of Chicano/Indigenous descent, strongly objected to that work in an email he sent to the Arts Council and during his appearance at the council’s Sept. 28 meeting, saying Madsen’s print depicted Native Americans as “ghosts,” perpetuating a myth that they no longer exist, a concept known as erasure. He referred to the print as “genocide art” in his email to the council.

At that meeting, attended by three other Indigenous artists, Montgomery said he was upset at what he called the council’s lack of outreach to Native artists. Ella Nathanael Alkiewicz of Northampton, who’s of Canadian/Inuk background, added that she felt “stung” that her artwork and poetry had not made the cut for the Biennial, saying she’s had her work shown and published elsewhere.

“I work to show that Inuk artists are here, that Natives are here,” she said.

That made the inclusion of Madsen’s work more problematic, Montgomery said at the meeting: “The idea that you would disregard Indigenous voices and Native voices in favor of old white women who want to discuss this because suddenly it’s become something they’ve had to learn about … is reprehensible.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Montgomery, who with his wife, Alexandra Woolner, was appointed poet laureate in Easthampton this spring, said his reference to “old white women” was not meant to refer to Madsen personally. Similarly, he says he had not intended to question the background or integrity of Tam but had made some remarks “in the heat of the moment.”

“The intention was not to denigrate the skills or judgment of the artists or the jurors,” he said. “What I was trying to make clear was that the (selection) process used for this exhibit is flawed.” And, he added, the larger issue overshadowing the Biennial is that of a society dominated by whites, including in the art world.

He also said he knows Jessica Tam and but did not know previously whether she identified as Asian or Asian American. He said he would honor the latter identity.

Montgomery, who submitted artwork that was not chosen for this year’s Biennial, did have a poem accepted for the 2019 Biennial, for which three white jurors evaluated the submissions; the jury for that year’s visual arts entries was also composed of three white jurors.

Asked why he did not take issue then with the makeup of those juries or the Biennial’s selection process, Montgomery said “I didn’t know these problems existed.”

This year, it was only after conversations with fellow Indigenous artists, members of the Arts Council’s Equity Committee, and the lead organizers of the exhibit that it became clear to him that “the whole process needed to change,” he said. Specifically, he’s calling for more Indigenous artists serving as jurors and possibly as Arts Council members, as well as more outreach to Indigenous artists.

Montgomery said he’s also alarmed at how some people have reacted to the story: “I’ve been getting death threats. Is that appropriate?”

Not about censorship

Danielle Amodeo, the Northampton Arts Council chairperson, and Brian Foote, the council’s director, released a longer statement Oct. 5 outlining the decision to scrap the exhibit, saying, in part, “We apologize to BIPOC artists and other historically excluded artists; we will do better in the future. We apologize to the artists whose works were selected for this year’s Biennial for canceling on short notice.” They said the decision was not about censorship.

Amodeo and Foote also said internal problems had surfaced earlier this year on the subcommittee responsible for the exhibit, ones that should have moved the Arts Council to cancel the event before it got to the finished state.

“For those who are angered, confused, or disappointed, we hope you can find it in your hearts and minds to understand why the Council canceled the show,” the statement continues. “We invite you to sit with your discomfort, reflect alongside us, and try to respect this decision.”

The Gazette posed additional questions this week to Amodeo and Foote, such as what they thought about Tam’s letter, why they used Montgomery’s description of Madsen’s artwork in their initial statement about the exhibit (that statement is still on the Arts Council website), and if they had reached out to Madsen or thought she might be owed an apology.

Foote did not respond, though Amodeo wrote in an email that the full council had yet to meet to discuss all the issues raised in recent weeks, and that she couldn’t answer for other members.

“Right now, we’re in listening mode,” she wrote. “We will hold a special meeting for Council members to weigh in on responses to the community and next steps.”

For her part, Tam said she recognizes the difficulty of the work the Arts Council does. “They’re all volunteers, sitting in long meetings and doing other work after doing their own jobs during the day. And they have to contend with some very tough issues.”

Improving diversity in any exhibit, she added, is a vital goal, “and I think it’s good that they’re discussing that.”

But as Tam wrote in the conclusion of her letter, for any commitment to social justice to work, it “needs to be accompanied by deliberation and care. In the past week, I am sorry to say that there were insufficient amounts of both.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.
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